Giving An 'F': Rewriting The History Of FSG

by Willy Blackmore

My understanding of what it means to be a publisher has been skewed ever since I first heard the word. My mom was reading A Wrinkle in Time to me — I must have been around 8 — when she explained that my great-grandfather had published the book. She told me how Madeleine L’Engle had taken the story of Meg Murry, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe to publisher after publisher, only to repeatedly be rejected. After being turned down by 26 or so houses, the book came to my mom’s grandfather, who read it and loved it, but “was afraid of it,” L’Engle later said. He did say he would buy the book, but as I recall my mother telling me — and this may be invented or misremembered — only if L’Engle made certain changes. Whether that’s true or not, publishing an apparently despised hybrid fantasy-science-fiction book written by a woman and targeted at young girls in 1962 was a risk. It was one that paid off for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Growing up, I continued to believe that a publisher was not only the person who read and edited the books, but the person who takes chances on books too. In other words, I thought that a publisher was more like an editor. That was a rather fateful confusion, one that would eventually land me in a not insignificant amount of debt, because I was also convinced that the people who picked and edited the books were the ones who ran the company as well. It wasn’t a dream that formed in my head back in second or third grade, but this curiosity in my long-dead relative eventually turned into a very particular career goal: I wanted to be a publisher like my great-grandfather was a publisher. That is, a publisher-editor.

What began as an interest in the man who realized how rad the tesseract was morphed as I grew older and developed as a reader. The more I read, the more I learned of the league of famous writers that were published by the house that John Farrar and Roger Straus co-founded in 1946. But the stories I collected from family members over the years did less to give shape to the man who died a decade before I was born than form a string of moments — some contradictory, some telling — that never seemed to form a cohesive narrative.

There was the shy bookworm my mother described, and the charismatic young literary star who drank with F. Scott Fitzgerald my uncle remembered being told stories about. The Skull and Bones member. The World War II spy. The man who took Carl Jung’s hand at an open window in his study and astral projected over the skies of Manhattan. The short-tempered redhead. The gay, closeted alcoholic. The failed poet. The fading not-quite retiree who read manuscripts at his apartment on 96th Street until he died.

Finding more than anecdotes and remembrances of John Farrar has been difficult. Despite his initial appearing on the spines of numerous Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning books, Farrar’s role in starting and building the house that bears his name has been pushed aside. Roger Straus has long dominated the narrative of FSG.

Straus’ legend was reinforced last year with the publication of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. As anyone who has seen The Social Network or read Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter knows, revising the history of a company to marginalize a co-founder who left early — and varnishing the singular importance of the remaining founder(s) — is by no means an old story. But in the case of FSG, the publisher-editor I was introduced to along with A Wrinkle in Time was and remains at the heart of the house that has had unequaled success as a large, literary publisher. As successful as Straus was at courting writers and negotiating contracts (by not involving agents), the only book I’m aware of him editing is the autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr. While Straus may have been the iconoclast of the publishing house, attracting many writers to FSG, the patient, thorough editing of Farrar is in the company’s DNA too. The notes that pepper the rejection letters he wrote, whether responding to a first-time novelist or (unfortunately) Anaïs Nin, amounted to a more thorough edit than most published books receive today.

When you look at the men that have been most important to the firm, the archetypal FSG man is, like Farrar, far more bookish than Straus. Both Robert Giroux — who was the editor for L’Engle’s adult fiction — and Jonathan Galassi, the current president and publisher, fit the mold: well-educated, skilled editors, at some time or to some degree closeted, possessing an ear and love for poetry, more prone to tweed than silk ascots. Lorin Stein, who left FSG to run the The Paris Review, was probably the closest synthesis of Farrar and Straus the house has seen — by all accounts the kind of person who’s as concerned with the tightness of a manuscript as he is with the fitness of a guest list.

But, as agent Andrew Wylie tells Kachka, “I think one of the reasons Roger is such a skilled publisher is the he’s such a marvelous inventor of stories.” Straus had been telling his version of the story of FSG since the beginning, playing up certain elements of the narrative and marginalizing others in a manner his best novelists might have appreciated. As Hothouse runs up the house’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1996, the story goes that FSG editor Elizabeth Sifton asked Alan Williams, the former Viking Publisher who edited a commemorative reader, why there wasn’t a richer history of the house. “He told her Straus and Giroux could never agree on one story,” according to Kachka. In the introduction to 50 Years: A Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Reader, distributed to family and friends of the house, “the nettlesome details and the spiky ironies were elided in favor Roger’s oft-told boilerplate.”

And so it’s the stories of the Guggenheim spendthrift who published Chilean communists, anti-Soviet dissidents, and was fond of yelling “fuck the peasants!” as a toast that we’re left with. Even Giroux’s involvement is marginalized. The dual role of paternalistic publisher and demurring editor that played between those two men as well as between Straus and Farrar is passed over for something more like an auteur-like telling of the firm’s history.

As far as Farrar’s concerned, he was at one point revised out of the origin story altogether, even though his accomplished wife went on FSG’s board after his death. In 2009, I noticed that on the FSG Facebook page that Straus was credited as the sole founder of the firm. In response to the note I annoyedly and annoyingly wrote on the wall, someone from the company posted the following: “To set the record straight, we double checked the official history, and it looks like Farrar jumped on board shortly after Straus founded FSG.”

Save for various profiles of Straus — a 2002 piece Ian Parker wrote for The New Yorker is particularly detailed — Kackha’s book really is the only comprehensive effort at telling the company’s history. Straus did begin writing his memoirs at one point, but gave up on the project. For his part, Giroux didn’t pursue a memoir because, “he couldn’t find a way to write it without speaking ill of Roger Straus, and he didn’t think that would serve anyone well,” according to Kackha.

The endpages of Hothouse are facing images of Giroux and Straus, the men presented as a double billing in a book that’s a story of a publisher as a business — Farrar, Straus and Giroux. But in the end, this is a book about one publisher and his sons and daughters — biological, “illegitimate,” and literary. Straus’s paternal narratives dominates, from his disavowal of his own father’s wishes (Roger Sr. encouraged him to sell to Reader’s Digest right before he died in 1957), to his paternalist publishing model, to his working relationships with a series of sons: an ultimately failed partnership with his biological son, Roger III, and with David Reiff, and his ultimate successor, Jonathan Galassi, who has repeatedly referred to Straus as a father figure.

The other ways of telling the tale, the way Giroux abandoned and the way Farrar might have written, remains to be told.

Union Square was less known for its greenmarket than needle-scattered sidewalks when I visited the FSG offices for the first time. I went under the premise of asking about the house’s internship program, but the thrill was more in seeing my own middle name etched in the brass plate above the entrance to the elevator, of stepping foot into the small lobby that was, true to myth, still a bit threadbare even after Straus’s death. Framed photos of generations of Farrar, Straus authors being bestowed with honors and awards lined the walls, a picture of Straus, stocky frame and immaculate suit signaling his renowned vulgarity and class, looking out over the many accolades. The receptionist, who mispronounced Farrar “far-ar,” gave me the contact information for the person who ran the intern program and I went on my way.

Back home in Iowa, still in high school, I labored over an earnest cover letter that resembled the beginning of this essay to a certain extent. My grandmother read it for me, and I distinctly recall her telling me that my tone was “flip” and that I should trash it. She helped me write something far more formal, which I used to apply for an internship. I didn’t get hired.

My grandmother has lived in the same apartment in Palo Alto since 1969. In the years when her father was still alive, he would send her copies of the books Farrar, Straus published, and the occasional anthology that his own writing on publishing appeared in. These would be set out on the coffee table, a psychedelic swirl of red fiberglass made by my surfing uncle, before being moved to the bookshelf, making way for the next package. Going through her shelves years later, I found a number of books on the business of publishing among the countless novels and volumes of poetry lining the hallway.

One of them anthologizes an essay John Farrar wrote in part about the editor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Wolf. “The growing legend that Maxwell Perkins, one of the greatest of all, confined himself to an exclusively editorial concern with authors is nonsense,” he wrote in The American Scholar’s 1949–50 issue. “He may have believed this was the ideal, but he could have remained a successful publisher-editor (I prefer this term) for six months without concerning himself with the business problem of his list and doing things about them.”

And although he kept his daughter from going to the otherwise low-rent cinema until Marie Antoinette took to the screen in 1938, Farrar championed a far broader approach as publisher-editor, acknowledging that the company existed beyond the borders of the editorial department, and in his pursuit of a more diverse list. Prior to picking up A Wrinkle In Time, FSG didn’t have a children’s division, but it build a lucrative one around that one title.

“It would be a bore, for me at any rate, to publish only for the ‘highbrow,’” he wrote in the same essay. “I like the ‘middlebrow.’ I like the ‘lowbrow.’ I have always despised the literary snob. I like a good story, and I am bored by a pretentious, dull book, no matter what scholarly cloak it wears.” In writing from that era, he mentions more than once that Vincent Benet’s Pulitzer-winning John Brown’s Body, and the more middlebrow novel that Porgy & Bess was based on, as two of the books he was most proud of being involved with.

Before publishing Vincent Benet, Farrar was writing his own poetry as a student at Yale. He won the inaugural Yale Series of Younger Poet’s Competition in 1919, and shortly thereafter jumped into editorial, running George Henry Doran’s literary journal, The Bookman, where he published F. Scott Fitzgerald. Farrar also helped Robert Frost establish the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in 1926. In 1951, he became the president of the New York chapter of P.E.N.

In terms of poetry, however, his verse did not age nearly as well as Frost’s. In a letter written in 1957 to her then-boyfriend Jack Kerouac, Joyce Johnson, who had just started at job at what was then Farrar, Straus and Cudahy (Sheila Cudahy was a partner at the firm from 1955 to 1962), wrote, “My boss is Mr. Farrar, an old man left over from the 20’s (I read some poetry written in his heyday in ‘24 — ‘I’ll filch the golden pollen / From half a million bees, / And I’ll dust it on some quiet bloom / Before she even sees.’ Etc., etc. — awful!)”

In her letters, Johnson calls Farrar a “sweet, neurotic, tweedy old man, who dates back from the Maxwell Perkins days in publishing.” Kachka quotes her too, that line in particular, writing, “Johnson’s dismissive assessment wasn’t too far off (Farrar declined rather rapidly), but she couldn’t be aware of how bright his heyday had been.” What follows are three-and-a-half pages dedicated to that heyday — the longest segment devoted to him in the entire book — which are mainly focused on the publisher’s involvement in World War II.

After Giroux’s death, FSG editor Pat Strachan spoke at his memorial about the many times her old boss eulogized other deceased veterans of the Farrar, Straus editorial department. “Going back through the editorial history,” Kachka writes, ”Strachan seemed to be raising the curtain on the long line of ghosts leading back to John Farrar, whose imprimatur and inherited writers Straus had once desperately needed.”

Farrar may have become something of a ghost — or less visible, at the very least — compared to Straus, but according to his own writing in The Colophon from 1938, receding into the background was necessary for letting the books come forward. “A publisher’s life is so fluid. Other personalities must so largely regulate his that he is always in danger of having no definite personality of his own. His first duty is to make others known to the public. It is hard to go back to the past when tomorrow one is publishing the newest and most exciting book; and it must always be the newest and most exciting book!”

I came back to the FSG offices a few years after my first visit, by then a publisher of an ultimately doomed indie, Impetus Press, that Jennifer Banash and I started in 2005. Galassi showed me something of his Straus side during the visit, playing the supportive, somewhat paternalistic advisor. While taking me on a tour through the warren of hallways and small offices where so many literary luminaries had worked over the years, he pulled down a copy of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke from a packed bookshelf and told me it was his best shot at winning a National Book Award that year. It did.

We had lunch at Union Square Café (I had a seared ahi tuna burger) although not at Straus’ preferred table 38. Instead, we sat in the window, Galassi pointing out the various publishers, like Grove/Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin, who streamed through, graciously introducing me as an honorary colleague of sorts to a few who stopped by to say hello.

He asked me about the books I liked, flatteringly complimenting my tastes. I remember him grinning knowingly when I brought up The Virgin Suicides. Galassi, a publisher-editor in his own right, had edited the book. And in terms of business, a lot of the advice he gave Jennifer and I during that visit had to do with money and distribution and subsidiary rights — all the less romantic elements of book publishing. What I remember best was somewhat counterintuitive coming from someone who, after all, works for Macmillian: He told me to never give up our independence.

Back at the office, Galassi loaded me down with galleys and a copy of the very first Farrar, Straus catalog. The single-folio pamphlet shows a lot of ambition and, in hindsight, little success. There’s not a single title from the inaugural list that I recognized. “A new imprint on a book gathers character through the years,” reads the opening of the publisher’s note, a statement that’s proven to be very true for FSG over the past 60 plus years. Leaving Union Square with the blue-covered catalog in my bag, it felt possible that the first books we released into obscurity could be forgotten without the press itself being remaindered too. We weren’t going to be FSG, but maybe we could be Melville House. We did reject Tao Lin’s first novel, after all.

In 1980, following the publication of a fly-on-the-wall look at a Farrar, Straus editorial meeting in the New York Times, Arthur Orrmont, an original member of the FSG staff, put forth his own version of the company history. “F, S had no clearly defined publishing personality until Edmund Wilson came to it in 1947 as the result of a lucky accident,” Orrmont wrote. He partly claims responsibility for that “lucky accident,” saying he suggested that Farrar get in touch with Wilson shortly after his book, Memoirs of Hecate County, was ruled obscene by the Supreme Court and banned in New York. The author made the jump from Doubleday and, “As if inspired by Wilson’s standing and distinction, F, S gradually became the foremost literary publisher in America (and the world).”

This is not an uncommon telling of Farrar, Straus’ evolution — that it took some time to land on its literary approach. But Orrmont’s crediting Farrar with the wherewithal of making it happen cuts strongly against that “official history.” After discrediting Straus’ literary chops — “In the summer of 1945, I think it was, Roger asked me to get up some notes for a speech he was giving to college woman on avant-garde authors. ‘Henry Miller and Djuna Barnes?’ I asked him. His frown told me he had read neither” — he does give him credit for building a business model around authors like Wilson. “But it’s also true that without John Farrar, a bookman-editor without peer and a notable human being,” Orrmont concluded, “the firm’s name, and its fate, would have been different.”

Claiming that “a number of my confreres did not like Mr. Orrmont’s letter because of its many inaccuracies,” Straus wrote to the Times with the official history. (That he needed any convincing to respond seems laughable.) He clarifies the timeline of Wilson’s arrival at FSG, which began with a contract for Classics and Commercials, not the play that Orrmont cites, then describes how, upon signing that first deal, he told Wilson, “The rumor is that you are death on a publisher and I have eliminated the option clause on the theory that if you are happy with us, all will be well; if not, nothing I can do will keep you.” Orrmont’s other claims are dutifully dismissed too.

Straus does agree that his deceased partner Farrar “was indeed a fine bookman-editor and brought to the firm a number of literary authors of the day including James Branch Cabell and Stephen Vincent Benet…” both of whom were dead when the firm launched.

I’ve searched for the note that Orrmont says Farrar sent to Wilson, but it’s not in either correspondent’s papers, both of which are housed at Yale, nor is it included in the collection of Wilson’s letters that FSG published in 1977. In the historical note that accompanies the collection of Farrar, Straus records at the New York Public Library, the arrival of Wilson from Doubleday is recounted in terms similar to Straus’ and Kachka’s telling. The official history stands.

After receiving a particularly brutal report on returned books in the fall of 2008, we realized that Impetus’s imprint had gained all of the character that it ever would. While we had never made a cent, and I had the costs of a first run (well, of 1,000 copies) of one of our books sitting on a credit card, we closed at a time when countless other questionably profitable culture businesses were folding.

Borders, fighting off the inevitable bankruptcy that wouldn’t come for another three years, was shedding unsold books en masse, including the relatively small number of copies of our books that stores had picked up here and there, pushing those costs back onto the distributors, who in turn pass them to publishers. In the Great Recession, the sales mechanism adopted by publishing during the Depression to make things easier on the book industry ultimately felled Impetus Press — at least that’s what I told our authors in the phone calls I had to make to inform them that, in a number of cases, their books wouldn’t be published after all.

One of those books that we were set to publish was London Calling by Gina Frangello. The Literary Ventures Fund, a sort of angel investor firm that helped finance individual books, had agreed to work with us on the title, and we were busy coordinating the extra muscle they were going to put into the press rollout and sales and distribution when the end came. I saved calling Gina until after I had spoke with everyone else, in part because we all believed that her novel would be our breakout book, one that would get mainstream press, broader distribution, and actually sell. Jennifer and I also regularly crashed in her basement when we visited Chicago, spending time reading children’s books to her son, talking with her daughters, and going out to eat and drink with Gina, her husband, and her writer friends. By no means could I call it a paternalistic relationship, but it was intimate in a way that somewhat resemble the social closeness of Straus’ interactions with his writers.

I called her while stuck in a horrendous traffic snarl. I had landed a gallery job shortly after moving to Los Angeles, and was out running errands. Stuck there in the car, it felt like I couldn’t put off breaking the news to her any longer. All I recall from the conversation was her initial confusion — she had thought I wanted to talk about London Calling’s imminent release — and that I started crying when I repeated that the press was closing and that, yes, that meant her book wouldn’t be published.

Gina’s now enjoying the kind of success we had hoped would happen six years ago with her new book, A Life In Men. Except her publisher is Algonquin, her editor Nan Talese. I’m reading the novel right now, the story of two young women who were inseparable for years, ever since they met as children. But after one discovers that she will eventually die of cystic fibrosis, that bond stretches, the pair drifting off, sometimes together, sometimes apart, around the world. The book spends a chunk of time in London in the early 1990s, the time and place where London Calling is also set. There’s a junkie named Yank, a broken southerner so entrenched in the squatter and traveler culture of far-from-gentrified South London that he appears in both the books. Finding Yank back in my life again while thinking of Farrar puts me in an especially what-if frame of mind, imagining the thrill of getting a rave review in the Boston Globe, the kind of press that might have been possible for London Calling.

Another book we had to cancel, a short story collection by Paula Bomer, was eventually released to high praise from Dennis Cooper among others. Nick Antosca’s novella Midnight Picnic, his second book with us, came out just before Impetus went under, leaving him in the biggest, most immediate limbo of all. Another indie, Word Riot, quickly re-released the book, which went on to win the Shirley Jackson Award.

Some of these people, like Gina, remain close friends, others are outright hostile toward Jennifer and I, and I can understand both responses. We sold them on an idea — there were no advances at Impetus Press — that we might not be able to go big with their books, but that we would labor over each title, working hand-in-hand with the authors from editing to book design to press and sales. That work may have been personally and creatively rewarding for me, but it failed the writers professionally in many ways, the few books of theirs that were printed likely pulped after they didn’t sell. We told them they had an audience, that we would find it for them, and we failed.

Today, the largest stockpile of Impetus Press books is stacked against the wall of my parent’s basement, still taped shut in the boxes they were packed in at the printers.

At the end of Hothouse, Kachka describes the sleek new offices that FSG moved to in 2007. There’s blonde wood and light, an open floor plan and, well, space — the usual trappings of your average contemporary workspace, many of which were missing from FSG’s longtime tattered home above Union Square. Yet despite the new, corporatized setting that might seem to belie FSG’s long-standing reputation for scrappiness, there’s the hulking table that once belonged to Roger Straus’ mother, Gladys Guggenheim, a table he used during the nearly 60 years he helped to run the company.

Although it isn’t mentioned in the book, another, smaller memento from FSG’s two co-founders likely made the trip to the new offices too: It’s a framed telegram that hung on the wall of Galassi’s old office. It’s a message sent from John Farrar to Robert Frost, and it reads: “I DECIDED IN THE NIGHT THAT I WAS PROUDER OF BEING A PUBLISHER THAN OF ANY PRETENSIONS TO LITERATURE.”

Willy Blackmore is an editor at TakePart. He is currently not a publisher.